The Chimney-Corner: Vii. Little Foxes.--Part Vi

DISCOURTESY.

" FOR my part,” said my wife, “I think one of the greatest destroyers of domestic peace is Discourtesy. People neglect,with their nearest friends, those refinements and civilities which they practise with strangers.”

“My dear Madam, I am of another opinion,” said Bob Stephens. “ The restraints of etiquette, the formalities of ceremony, are beauteous enough in out-door life ; but when a man comes home, he wants leave to take off his tight boots and gloves, wear the gown and slippers, and speak his mind freely without troubling his head where it hits. Home-life should be the communion of people who have learned to understand each other, who allow each other a generous latitude and freedom. One wants one place where he may feel at liberty to be tired or dull or disagreeable without ruining his character. Home is the place where we should expect to live somewhat on the credit which a full knowledge of each other's goodness and worth inspires ; and it is not necessary for intimate friends to go every day through those civilities and attentions which they practise with strangers, any more than it is necessary, among literary people, to repeat the alphabet over every day before one begins to read.”

“Yes,” said Jennie, “when a young gentleman is paying his addresses, he helps a young lady out of a carriage so tenderly, and holds back her dress so adroitly, that not a particle of mud gets on it from the wheels ; but when the mutual understanding is complete, and the affection perfect, and she is his wife, he sits still and holds the horse and lets her climb out alone. To be sure, when pretty Miss Titmouse is visiting them, he still shows himself gallant, flies from the carriage, and holds back her dress : that’s because he does n’t love her nor she him, and they are not on the ground of mutual affection. When a gentleman is only engaged, or a friend, if you hem him a cravat or mend his gloves, he thanks you in the blandest manner ; but when you are once sure of his affection, he only says, ' Very well; now I wish you would look over my shirts, and mend that rip in my coat, — and be sure don’t forget it, as you did yesterday.’ For all which reasons,” said Miss Jennie, with a toss of her pretty head, “ I mean to put off marrying as long as possible, because I think it far more agreeable to have gentlemen friends with whom I stand on the ground of ceremony and politeness than to be restricted to one who is living on the credit of his affection. I don't want a man who gapes in my face, reads a newspaper all breakfast - time while I want somebody to talk to, smokes cigars all the evening, or reads to himself when I would like him to be entertaining, and considers his affection for me as his right and title to make himself generally disagreeable. If he has a bright face, and pleasant, entertaining, gallant ways, I like to be among the ladies who may have the benefit of them, and should take care how I lost my title to it by coming with him on to the ground of domestic affection.”

“Well, Miss Jennie,” said Bob, “it is n’t merely our sex who are guilty of making themselves less agreeable after marriage. Your dapper little fairy creatures, who dazzle us so with wondrous and fresh toilettes, who are so trim and neat and sprightly and enchanting, what becomes of them after marriage ? If he reads the newspaper at the breakfasttable, perhaps it ’s because there is a sleepy, dowdy woman opposite, in a faded gingham wrapper, put on in the sacredness of domestic privacy, and perhaps she has laid aside those crisp, sparkling, bright little sayings and doings that used to make it impossible to look at or listen to anybody else when she was about. Such things are, sometimes, among the goddesses, I believe. Of course, Marianne and I know nothing of these troubles ; we, being a model pair, sit among the clouds and speculate on all these matters as spectators merely.”

“ Well, you see what your principle leads to, carried out,” said Jennie. “ If home is merely the place where one may feel at liberty to be tired or dull or disagreeable, without losing one's character, I think the women have far more right to avail themselves of the liberty than the men ; for all the lonesome, dull, disagreeable part of home-life comes into their department. It is they who must keep awake with the baby, if it frets ; and if they do not feel spirits to make an attractive toilette in the morning, or have not the airy, graceful fancies that they had when they were girls, it is not so very much against them. A housekeeper and nursery-maid cannot be expected to be quite as elegant in her toilette and as entertaining in her ways as a girl without a care in her father's house ; but I think that this is no excuse for husbands’ neglecting the little civilities and attentions which they used to show before marriage. They are strong and well and hearty ; go out into the world and hear and see a great deal that keeps their minds moving and awake ; and they ought to entertain their wives after marriage just as their wives entertained them before. That ’s the way my husband must do, or I will never have one, — and it will be small loss, if I don’t,” said Miss Jennie.

“ Well,” said Bob, “ I must endeavor to initiate Charley Sedley in time.”

“ Charley Sedley, Bob ! ” said Jennie, with crimson indignation. “ I wonder you will always bring up that old story, when I ’ve told you a hundred times how disagreeable it is ! Charley and I are good friends, but”—

“There, there,” said Bob, “that will do ; you don t need to proceed further.”

“You only said that because you could n't answer my argument,” said Jennie.

“ Well, my dear,” said Bob, “ you know everything has two sides to it, and I ’ll admit that you have brought up the opposite side to mine quite handsomely ; but, for all that, I am convinced, that, if what I said was not really the truth, yet the truth lies somewhere in the vicinity of it. As I said before, so I say again, true love ought to beget a freedom which shall do away with the necessity of ceremony, and much may and ought to be tolerated among near and dear friends that would be discourteous among strangers. I am just as sure of this as of anything in the world.”

“ And yet.” said my wife, “ there is certainly truth in the much quoted lines of Cowper, on Friendship, where he says,—

“As similarity' of mind,
Or something not to be defined,
First fixes our attention,
So manners decent and polite,
The same we practised at first sight,
Will save it from declension.”

“Well, now,” said Bob, “I Ve seen enough of French politeness between married people. When I was in Paris, I remember there was in our boardinghouse a Madame de Villiers, whose husband had conferred upon her his name and the de belonging to it, in consideration of a snug little income which she brought to him by the marriage. His conduct towards her was a perfect model of all the graces of civilized life. It was true that he lived on her income, and spent it in promenading the Boulevards, and visiting theatres and operas with divers fair friends of easy morals ; still all this was so courteously, so politely, so diplomatically arranged with Madame, that it was quite worth while to be neglected and cheated for the sake of having the thing done in so finished and elegant a manner, according to his showing. Monsieur had taken the neat little apartment for her in our pension, because his circumstances were embarrassed, and he would be in despair to drag such a creature into hardships which he described as terrific, and which he was resolved heroically to endure alone. No, while a sous remained to them, his adored Julie should have her apartment and the comforts of life secured to her, while the barest attic should suffice for him. Never did he visit her without kissing her hand with the homage due to a princess, complimenting her on her good looks, bringing bonbons, entertaining her with most ravishing small-talk of all the interesting on-dits in Paris ; and these visits were most particularly frequent as the time for receiving her quarterly instalments approached. And so Madame adored him and could refuse him nothing, believed all his stories, and was well content to live on a fourth of her own income for the sake of so engaging a husband.”

“Well,” said Jennie, “I don’t know to what purpose your anecdote is related, but to me it means simply this : if a rascal, without heart, without principle, without any good quality, can win and keep a woman’s heart merely by being invariably polite and agreeable while in her presence, how much more might a man of sense and principle and real affection do by the same means ! I ’m sure, if a man who neglects a woman, and robs her of her money, nevertheless keeps her affections, merely because whenever he sees her he is courteous and attentive, it certainly shows that courtesy stands for a great deal in the matter of love.”

“ With foolish women,” said bob.

“Yes, and with sensible ones too,” said my wife. “ Your Monsieur presents a specimen of the French way of doing a bad thing ; but I know a poor woman whose husband did the same thing in English fashion, without kisses or compliments. Instead of flattering, he swore at her, and took her money away without the ceremony of presenting bonbons ; and I assure you, if the thing must be done at all, I would, for my part, much rather have it done in the French than the English manner. The courtesy, as far as it goes, is a good, and far better than nothing, — though, of course, one would rather have substantial good with it. If one must be robbed, one would rather have one’s money wheedled away agreeably, with kisses and bonbons, than be knocked down and trampled upon.”

“ The mistake that is made on this subject,” said I, “ is in comparing, as people generally do, a polished rascal with a boorish good man ; but the polished rascal should be compared with the polished good man, and the boorish rascal with the boorish good man, and hen we get the true value of the article.

“ It is true, as a general rule, that those races of men that are most distinguished for outward urbanity and courtesy are the least distinguished for truth and sincerity ; and hence the well-known alliterations, ‘fair and false,’ ‘smooth and slippery.’ The fair and false Greek, the polished and wily Italian, the courteous and deceitful Frenchman, are associations which, to the strong, downright, courageous Anglo-Saxon, make up-anddown rudeness and blunt discourtesy a type of truth and honesty.

“ No one can read French literature without feeling how the element of courtesy pervades every department of life, — how carefully people avoid being personally disagreeable in their intercourse. A domestic quarrel, if we may trust French plays, is carried on with all the refinements of good breeding, and insults are given with elegant civility. It seems impossible to translate into French the direct and downright brutalities which the English tongue allows. The whole intercourse of life is arranged on the understanding that all personal contacts, shall be smooth and civil, and such as to obviate the necessity of personal jostle and jar.

“ Does a Frenchman engage a clerk or other employé, and afterwards hear a report to his disadvantage, the last thing he would think of would be to tell a downright unpleasant truth to the man. He writes him a civil note, and tells him, that, in consequence of an unexpected change of business, he shall not need an assistant in that department, and much regrets that this will deprive him of Monsieur’s agreeable society, etc.

“A more striking example cannot be found of this sort of intercourse than the representation in tire life of Madame George Sand of the proceedings between her father and his mother. There is all the romance of affection between this mother and son. He writes her the most devoted letters, he kisses her hand on every page, he is the very image of a gallant, charming, lovable son, while at the same time he is secretly making arrangements for a private marriage with a woman of low rank and indifferent reputation,— a marriage which he knows would be like death to his mother. He marries, lives with his wife, has one or two children by her, before he will pain the heart of his adored mother by telling her the truth. The adored mother suspects her son, but no trace of the suspicion appears in her letters to him. The questions which an English parent would level at him point-blank she is entirely too delicate to address to her dear Maurice ; but she puts them to the Prefect of Police, and ferrets out the marriage through legal documents, while yet no trace of this knowledge dims the affectionateness of her letters, or the serenity of her reception of her son when he comes to bestow on her the time which he can spare from his family cares. In an English or American family there would have been a battle royal, an open rupture ; whereas this courteous son and mother go on for years with this polite drama, she pretending to be deceived while she is not, and he supposing that he is sparing her feelings by the deception.

“ Now it is the reaction from such a style of life on the truthful Anglo-Saxon nature that leads to an undervaluing of courtesy, as if it were of necessity opposed to sincerity. But it does not follow, because all is not gold that glitters, that nothing that glitters is gold, and because courtesy and delicacy of personal intercourse are often perverted to deceit, that they are not valuable allies of truth. No woman would prefer a slippery, plausible rascal to a rough, unceremonious honest man ; but of two men equally truthful and affectionate, every woman would prefer the courteous one.” “Well,” said Bob, " there is a loathsome, sickly stench of cowardice and distrust about all this kind of French delicacy that is enough to drive an honest fellow to the other extreme. True love ought to be a robust, hardy plant, that can stand a free out-door life of sun and wind and rain. People who are too delicate and courteous ever fully to speak their minds to each other are apt to have stagnant residuums of unpleasant feelings which breed all sorts of gnats and mosquitoes. My rule is, Say everything out as you go along ; have your little tiffs, and get over them ; jar and jolt and rub a little, and learn to take rubs and bear jolts.

“ If I take less thought and use less civility of expression, in announcing to Marianne that her coffee is roasted too much, than I did to old Mrs. Pollux when I boarded with her, it 's because I take it Marianne is somewhat more a part of myself than old Mrs. Pollux was, — that there is an intimacy and confidence between us which will enable us to use the short-hand of life, — that she will not fall into a passion or fly into hysterics, but will merely speak to cook in good time. If I don’t thank her for mending my glove in just the style that I did when I was a lover, it is because now she does that sort of thing for me so often that it would be a downright bore to her to have me always on my knees about it. All that I could think of to say about her graceful handiness and her delicate needle-work has been said so often, and is so well understood, that it has entirely lost the zest of originality. Marianne and I have had sundry little battles, in which the victory came out on both sides, each of us thinking the better of the other for the vigor and spirit with which we conducted matters ; and our habit of perfect plain-speaking and truth-telling to each other is better than all the delicacies that ever were hatched up in the hot-bed of French sentiment.”

“ Perfectly true, perfectly right,” said I. “ Every word good as gold. Truth before all things ; sincerity before all things : pure, clear, diamondbright sincerity is of more value than the gold of Ophir ; the foundation of all love must rest here. How those people do who live in the nearest and dearest intimacy with friends who they believe will lie to them for any purpose, even the most refined and delicate, is a mystery to me. If I once know that my wife or my friend will tell me only what they think will be agreeable to me, then I am at once lost, my way is a pathless quicksand. But all this being premised, I still say that we Anglo-Saxons might improve our domestic life, if we would graft upon the strong stock of its homely sincerity the courteous graces of the French character.

“ If anybody wishes to know exactly what I mean by this, let him read the Memoir of De Tocqueville, whom I take to be the representative of the French ideal man ; and certainly the kind of family life which his domestic letters disclose has a delicacy and a beauty which adorn its solid worth.

“ What I have to say on this matter is, that it is very dangerous for any individual man or any race of men continually to cry up the virtues to which they are constitutionally inclined, and to be constantly dwelling with reprobation on faults to which they have no manner of temptation.

1 think that we of the English race may set it down as a general rule that we are in no danger of becoming hypocrites in domestic life through an extra sense of politeness, and in some danger of becoming boors from a rough, uncultivated instinct of sincerity. But to bring the matter to a practical point, I will specify some particulars in which the courtesy we show to strangers might with advantage be grafted into our home-life.

“ In the first place, then, let us watch our course when we are entertaining strangers whose good opinion we wish to propitiate. We dress ourselves with care, we study what it will be agreeable to say, we do not suffer our natural laziness to prevent our being very alert in paying small attentions, we start across the room for an easier chair, we stoop to pick up the fan, we search for the mislaid newspaper, and all this for persons in whom we have no particular interest beyond the passing hour; while with those friends whom we love and respect we sit in our old faded habiliments, and let them get their own chair, and look up their own newspaper, and fight their own way daily, without any of this preventing care.

“ In the matter of personal adornment, especially, there are a great many people who are chargeable with the same fault that I have already spoken of in reference to household arrangements. They have a splendid wardrobe for company, and a shabby and sordid one for domestic life. A woman puts all her income into party-dresses, and thinks anything will do to wear at home. All her old tumbled finery, her frayed, dirty silks and soiled ribbons, are made to do duty for her hours of intercourse with her dearest friends. Some seem to be really principled against wearing a handsome dress in every-day life ; they ‘ cannot afford ' to be well-dressed in private. Now what I should recommend would be to take the money necessary for one or two party-dresses and spend it upon an appropriate and tasteful home-toilette, and to make it an avowed object to look prettily at home.

“ We men are a sort of stupid, blind animals : we know when we are pleased, but we don’t know what it is that pleases us ; we say we don’t care anything about flowers, but if there is a flower-garden under our window, somehow or other we are dimly conscious of it, and feel that there is something pleasant there; and so when our wives and daughters are prettily and tastefully attired, we know it, and it gladdens our life far more than we are perhaps aware of.”

“ Well, papa,” said Jennie, “ I think the men ought to take just as much pains to get themselves up nicely after marriage as the women. I think there are such things as tumbled shirt-collars and frowzy hair and muddy shoes brought into the domestic sanctuary, as well as frayed silks and dirty ribbons.”

“ Certainly,” I said ; “but you know we are the natural Hottentot, and you are the missionaries who are to keep us from degenerating ; we are the clumsy, old, blind Vulcan, and you the fair Cytherea, the bearers of the magic cestus, and therefore it is to you that this head more particularly belongs.

“ Now I maintain that in family-life there should be an effort not only to be neat and decent in the arrangement of our person, but to be also what the French call coquette, — or to put it in plain English, there should be an endeavor to make ourselves look handsome in the eyes of our dearest friends.

“ Many worthy women, who would not for the world be found wanting in the matter of personal neatness, seem somehow to have the notion that any study of the arts of personal beauty in familylife is unmatronly ; they buy their clothes with simple reference to economy, and have them made up without any question of becomingness ; and hence marriage sometimes transforms a charming, trim, tripping young lady into a waddling matron whose every-day toilette suggests only the idea of a feather-bed tied round with a string. For my part, I do not believe that the summary banishment of the Graces from the domestic circle as soon as the first baby makes its appearance is at all conducive to domestic affection. Nor do I think that there is any need of so doing. These good housewives are in danger, like other saints, of falling into the error of neglecting the body through too much thoughtfulness for others and too little for themselves. If a woman ever had any attractiveness, let her try and keep it, setting it down as one of her domestic talents. As for my erring brothers who violate the domestic sanctuary by tousled hair, tumbled linen, and muddy shoes, I deliver them over to Miss Jennie without benefit of clergy.

“ My second head is, that there should be in family-life the same delicacy in the avoidance of disagreeable topics that characterizes the intercourse of refined society among strangers.

“ I do not think that it makes familylife more sincere, or any more honest, to have the members of a domestic circle feel a freedom to blurt out in each other's faces, without thought or care, all the disagreeable things that may occur to them : as, for example, ‘ How horridly you look this morning! What ’s the matter with you?’ — ‘Is there a pimple coming on your nose ? or what is that spot ? ’ —‘ What made you buy such a dreadfully unbecoming dress ? It sets like a witch! Who cut it?’ — ‘What makes you wear that pair of old shoes ? ’ — ‘ Holloa, Bess ! is that your party-rig ? I should think you were going out for a walking advertisement of a flower-store ! ’ — Observations of this kind between husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, or intimate friends, do not indicate sincerity, but obtuseness ; and the person who remarks on the pimple on your nose is in many cases just as apt to deceive you as the most accomplished Frenchwoman who avoids disagreeable topics in your presence.

“ Many families seem to think that it is a proof of family union and good-nature that they can pick each other to pieces, joke on each other's feelings and infirmities, and treat each other with a general tally-ho-ing rudeness without any offence or ill-feeling. If there is a limping sister, there is a never-failing supply of jokes on ‘ Dot-and-go-one ’; and so with other defects and peculiarities of mind or manners. Now the perfect good-nature and mutual confidence which allow all this liberty are certainly admirable ; but the liberty itself is far from making home-life interesting or agreeable.

“Jokes upon personal or mental infirmities, and a general habit of saying things in jest which would be the height of rudeness if said in earnest, are all habits which take from the delicacy of family affection.

“ In all this rough playing with edgetools many are hit and hurt who are ashamed or afraid to complain. And after all, what possible good or benefit comes from it ? Courage to say disagreeable things, when it is necessary to say them for the highest good of the person addressed, is a sublime quality ; but a careless habit of saying them, in the mere freedom of family intercourse, is certainly as great a spoiler of the domestic vines as any fox running.

“There is one point under this head which I enlarge upon for the benefit of my own sex: I mean table-criticisms. The conduct of housekeeping, in the present state of domestic service, certainly requires great allowance ; and the habit of unceremonious comment on the cooking and appointments of the table, in which some husbands habitually allow themselves, is the most unpardonable form of domestic rudeness. If a wife has philosophy enough not to mind it, so much the worse for her husband, as it confirms him in an unseemly habit, embarrassing to guests and a bad example to children. If she has no feelings that he is bound to respect, he should at least respect decorum and good taste, and confine the discussion of such matters to private intercourse, and not initiate every guest and child into the grating and greasing of the wheels of the domestic machinery.

“ Another thing in which families might imitate the politeness of strangers is a wise reticence with regard to the asking of questions and the offering of advice.

“A large family includes many persons of different tastes, habits, modes of thinking and acting, and it would be wise and well to leave to each one that measure of freedom in these respects which the laws of general politeness require. Brothers and sisters may love each other very much, and yet not enough to make joint-stock of all their ideas, plans, wishes, schemes, friendships. There are in every family-circle individuals whom a certain sensitiveness of nature inclines to quietness and reserve ; and there are very wellmeaning families where no such quietness or reserve is possible. Nobody can be let alone, nobody may have a secret, nobody can move in any direction, without a host of inquiries and comments. ‘ Who is your letter from ? Let ’s see.' — ‘ My letter is from Soand-So.’ — ‘ He writing to you ? I did n’t know that. What ’s he writing about?’ — ‘Where did you go yesterday ? What did you buy ? What did you give for it ? What are you going to do with it?’ — ‘Seems to me that’s an odd way to do. I should n’t do so.’ — ‘ Look here, Mary ; Sarah’s going to have a dress of silk tissue this spring. Now I think they ’re too dear, — don’t you ? ’

“ I recollect seeing in some author a description of a true gentleman, in which, among other traits, he was characterized as the man that asks the fewest questions. This trait of refined society might be adopted into home-life in a far greater degree than it is, and make it far more agreeable.

“ If there is perfect unreserve and mutual confidence, let it show itself in free communications coming unsolicited. It may fairly be presumed, that, if there is anything our intimate friends wish us to know, they will tell us of it, — and that when we are on close and confidential terms with persons, and there are topics on which they do not speak to us, it is because for some reason they prefer to keep silence concerning them ; and the delicacy that respects a friend’s silence is one of the charms of life.

“ As with the asking of questions, so with the offering of advice, there should be among friends a wise reticence.

“ Some families are always calling each other to account at every step of the day. ‘ What did you put on that dress for ? Why did n't you wear that ? ’ — ‘ What did you do this for ? Why did n’t you do that?’ — ‘Now I should advise you to do thus and so.’ — And these comments and criticisms and advices are accompanied with an energy of feeling that makes it rather difficult to disregard them.

“Now it is no matter how dear and how good our friends may be, if they abridge our liberty and fetter the free exercise of our life, it is inevitable that we shall come to enjoying ourselves much better where they are not than where they are ; and one of the reasons why brothers and sisters or children so often diverge from the familycircle in the choice of confidants is, that extraneous friends are bound by certain laws of delicacy not to push inquiries, criticisms, or advice too far.

“ Parents would do well to remember in time when their children have grown up into independent human beings, and use with a wise moderation those advisory and admonitory powers with which they guided their earlier days. Let us give everybody a right to live his own life, as far as possible, and avoid imposing our own personalities on another.

“ If I were to picture a perfect family, it should be a union of people of individual and marked character, who through love have come to a perfect appreciation of each other, and who so wisely understand themselves and one another that each may move freely along his or her own track without jar or jostle, — a family where affection is always sympathetic and receptive, but never inquisitive, — where all personal delicacies are respected, — and where there is a sense of privacy and seclusion in following one’s own course, unchallenged by the watchfulness of others, yet withal a sense of society and support in a knowledge of the kind dispositions and interpretations of all around.

“ In treating of family discourtesies, I have avoided speaking of those which come from ill-temper and brute selfishness, because these are sins more than mistakes. An angry person is generally impolite ; and where contention and ill-will are, there can be no courtesy. What I have mentioned are rather the lackings of good and often admirable people, who merely need to consider in their family-life a little more of whatsoever things are lovely. With such the mere admission of anything to be pursued as a duty secures the purpose ; only in their somewhat earnest pursuit of the substantials of life they drop and pass by the little things that give it sweetness and perfume. To such a word is enough, and that word is said.”